By Andrew Gimson
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Ken Clarke appeared on television yesterday morning in a beige roll-neck jersey of what I can only call magnificent unfashionableness. The garment proclaimed, without need for words, an Englishman’s ancient and inviolable right to wear whatever he feels comfortable in on Sunday morning, regardless of how dowdy it may look to metropolitan trendies, and regardless of whether he happens to be going on television.
Mr Clarke has another ancient English characteristic. He enjoys being rude about people. In his Sunday morning interview with Dermot Murnaghan of Sky News, he was rude about UKIP. I find it frustrating to read only the most abusive snippets from this kind of attack, which is all one gets in news reports where the journalist is having to cover a lot of ground. So here are two of the exchanges quoted at greater length, taken from the transcript prepared for Sky News.
Murnaghan: “You [the Tories] are particularly spooked about UKIP it seems, they say you’re going round digging up dirt about some of their candidates.”
Clarke: “Well they have got to vet their candidates and fringe right parties do tend to collect a number of waifs and strays. Some of the ones they have sent as Members of the European Parliament, one of them got sent to prison, others had to send back a lot of money because they all believed what they’d been saying about the Brussels gravy train and unwisely tried to take advantage of it, but the trouble with UKIP really is it is just a protest party. It is against the political parties, the political classes, it’s against foreigners, it’s against immigrants but it doesn’t have any very positive policies, they don’t know what they’re for. I think if you look at Italy where they have just managed to go into it, it shows the dangers where ordinary members of the public who are very angry about the political class really vote for people who are in Italy’s case just comedians, a man called Beppe Grillo and all kinds of, all sorts of men and women, some of them disreputable, some of them not but who have no idea of government or what they wanted to do, you create a bit of a crisis, a bit of a mess. They talk about running county councils here, you should send to the county council people who will control the council tax, carry on running it sensibly at a very difficult time of financial crisis and no doubt most of the UKIP people are perfectly nice when they’re having a drink but I wouldn’t send most of them to the county council.”
That strikes me as a pretty fair way of putting the argument against voting for UKIP.
Murnaghan picks up an abusive phrase from this and sees whether Clarke will go further: “Okay, waifs and strays you call them, I take it you’re not a fan, what about the Prime Minister’s comment some years back about fruit cakes and closet racists?”
Clarke: “I’ve met people who satisfy both those descriptions in UKIP, indeed some of the people who assure me they are going to vote UKIP I would put into that category and I rather suspect they have never voted for me but there are … the temptation for ordinary voters of UKIP is these are very difficult times, the political class are regarded as having got us into a mess, the last government left chaos behind them, the present government is having a long, hard road to follow to get us back to normality, it’s very tempting to vote for a collection of clowns or indignant angry people who promise that somehow they’ll allow you to take your revenge on the people who caused it. You should actually vote for the people you think are going to be sensible county councillors.”
Once again, this strikes me as fair comment. But it enabled the press to spot a “Cabinet rift” – that great staple of political reporting – on how to respond to UKIP. For the official Downing Street line was apparently still to downplay the threat from UKIP, and Patrick MacLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, had insisted only an hour before that he was “not worried by UKIP at all”.
In today’s Telegraph, Boris Johnson asserts, with characteristic optimism, that UKIP’s success is actually a good thing for the Tories, as it shows public opinion, far from swinging behind Labour, has turned against Brussels and immigration, indicating that “a Tory approach is broadly popular”.
As I read this piece, I thought I detected a gleam in its author’s eye. UKIP, he implies, is the lost Tory tribe, and one day, in an inspirational outpouring of harmony and brotherhood, it will be reunited with the Conservative Party, which will be so invigorated by this reunion that it will dominate British politics for many years to come. Hence the inadvisability of abusing the Tories’ lost kinsfolk in UKIP. One day a peace treaty will be negotiated, and it is just conceivable that this Telegraph columnist has an idea of which future Tory leader would best be able to conduct those negotiations in a spirit of magnanimity.
But on Thursday, UKIP’s makeshift army will pose a threat to many Tory councillors who deserve to hold their seats. So in my opinion Clarke was quite right to speak out.